On the Wrong Side of the Bell Curve

My doctor was trying to explain why the pain in my neck was more likely to be arthritis based than just a pinched nerve. “You see, in evolutionary terms…” He paused. “That is, if you believe in evolution…” My doctor knows I’m a priest and, in fact, we uncovered a curious connection when we first met a year ago upon discovering that I had served as Curate in the parish in New Jersey where he grew up. Since physicians and patients have no more than their proscribed 10 minutes together, he really doesn’t know much else about me (except for my blood pressure, my creatinine, my A1C, and my cholesterol levels). In essence, I’m a series of numbers that happen to attend a coincidence. I found it interesting that he may have assumed that since I’m a Christian, I may not believe in evolution. It has become something of a cultural given these days – that embrace of Christianity must also mean a commitment to Creationism and other nonsensical beliefs that cannot be empirically verified. Christians are Luddites, Christian thought and life is devoid of rationality, Christianity stands in opposition to the scientific method and its discoveries. Certainly, there are lots of Christians who fit that description. In fact there are so many, and they receive such widespread attention in the press, that non-religious types could well be justified in thinking that such a stance is the norm and not the exception. Tragically, the intellectually impoverished literalist has become the new face of Christianity. Widespread revelations of clergy misconduct in the last decade have only supported that view. Criminal clergy, unquestionably ill and constitutionally unfit for any position of responsibility or leadership, have so dominated headlines and film treatments that it’s hard to believe that there are noble and selfless people out there who are ordained and working hard to serve. The ordained are automatically suspect simply because of their choice of profession. Yet, unlikely as it may seem, it is possible for intelligence, rationality, and a lively embrace of scientific certainty to coexist with a rich life of faith. There’s a problem with intelligent Christianity, though – it doesn’t make for dramatic headlines and it’s proponents tend not to make as much noise as the rigidly insistent. This isn’t just a problem with religion, however. The more complex our society becomes, the more fevered the attempt to categorize people, ideas, organizations and belief systems with broad brush strokes – strokes which outline simplistic definitions. Nothing typifies this more than the ascendency of Donald Trump to candidacy for the highest office in the land. It is far too easy to assume that conservative political belief must equate with exclusivist and uncritical bombast, or that all conservatives suffer from the same paucity of thought and flexible moral behavior of the Presidential candidate of the Republican Party. However, the ascendency of Mr. Trump is nothing more than verification of the brilliance of the bell curve and the willingness of those on the left side of the curve to act when provided with sufficient stimulation. In this case, the bell curve measures not intelligence (there are, incredible as it may seem, intelligent people who will vote for Mr. Trump) but rather the inclination to act in response to feeling rather than thinking. I have a dog whose behavior is dependent entirely on feeling. Rescued as a stray, Sam spent a considerable amount of time in the world without human companionship. I can’t begin to imagine the experiences that created a pervasive feeling of insecurity in him – having to scavenge for food, needing to remain hidden, unable to find safe space to rest. As a result he is, and likely will remain, emotionally reactive. His behavioral agenda was set in a time of scarcity and uncertainty, and he is incapable of revising that agenda based on current circumstances. In other words, he can’t think about his feelings. Even though humans possess the capacity to think about their emotions, we tend to revert to a purely feeling state in times of stress, fear, or want. At those times, we are at the greatest risk of loosing the fundamental uniqueness of our humanity – the ability to apply reason to reality. The last two decades have been flooded with emotional stimuli, from the despicable behavior of deviants in ministry to the ever present threat of terrorism to the volatility of global economic shifts to the highly publicized killings of both African Americans by police and police by vengeful vigilantes. The redefinition of sexual roles and mores, the chronic abuse of power in both government and industry, the ever present...

You’re Black, I’m fat, she’s gay, he’s stupid.

Everyone has something that makes them question their worth. It may be skin color, body shape, gender identity or sexual orientation. Hair (or lack thereof), facial features, economic status, dental condition, a personal history filled with disadvantage. Some folks hide their dissatisfaction with self better than others, managing to convince those around them that whatever condition they live with doesn’t matter to them at all. Some nurse a deep seated anger that they are not treated as they feel they should be. Others wear their membership in a human subset defiantly, daring others to make an issue of their uniqueness. Some surrender to the idea that different from must mean less than, timidly consigning self to lesser rungs on the human ladder. Few stop to realize that worth is not static (even gold fluctuates in value throughout the day), but is rather determined by an observer. The problem is often that people cede the observation post to an amorphous entity called The Dominant Culture. A construct of pure fantasy, The Dominant Culture in our time is created and held out as normative by the media, a vehicle (rather than a single entity) utilized by those whose primary interest is in transforming observers into purchasers. In times passed, pre-media times, The Dominant Culture was determined by other agencies – by the most populous religion in an area or a governmental structure dependent upon individual adherence. The emergence of a Dominant Culture is common to all mammalian groups, often established in non-human groupings through weight of sheer force as competitors vie for the position of Alpha, proof positive that human bullies, be they schoolyard, workplace, or neighborhood are further down the evolutionary ladder than those upon whom they apply the threat of violence. All who assert the existence of The Dominant Culture insist on its near-universal character, creating an instant division between those who belong and those who are outside the circle of acceptance. In that sense, The Dominant Culture is like a Fun House mirror, reflecting not a true image of the viewer, but rather an distorted picture of the viewer’s excluding deficits. In truth, very few, if any, fit naturally into the image of The Dominant Culture, which is why Photoshop was created. In the same way that The Dominant Culture in less sophisticated times was intended to stir up feelings of nationalism or implant the hunger for piety or instill fear of the leader or disdain for racial impurity, The Dominant Culture in our time has been constructed with a particular goal — the initiation of desire, and a particular target – the teenage boy who has only recently entered into puberty. Social scientists are well aware that this unfortunate creature is the perfect quarry for the influence peddler. Intellectually underdeveloped, hormonally driven, the pubescent teenage male has already differentiated from his family of origin and is desperate for acceptance into a peer group with well defined boundaries. That group should ideally embrace values eschewed by the family culture from which the teen has just emerged. The peer group demonstrates bonding in the uniform acceptance of fashion, activity, language and pecking order. It is to these that the idealized image of The Dominant Culture appeals. Thus personal appearance is oriented, like Middle School Lesson Plans, toward the lowest common denominator and will tolerate little, if any, variation. The insistence on the acquisition of product is overlaid by a prurient sexuality (so popular with little boys) where a woman’s breast exists for the pleasure of the viewer and must be hidden when being utilized in a biologically appropriate manner. Personal status is amplified by acquisition of the most recently released whatever. Masculinity is favored over maturity as maturity requires very little but masculinity can always be enhanced by product that triggers the release of adrenaline. Senses are targeted rather than intellect since the young teen possesses so little of the latter. Thus things that smell a certain way or feel a certain way or taste a certain way are far easier to sell than things that improve health or insure stability. So, if you’re Black or fat or gay or have unruly hair or crooked teeth or need thick glasses or wear frumpy clothes, you’re not going to see yourself reflected in any display of The Dominant Culture since it is created to appeal to Stupid. And undeveloped. And needy. Because you’re not worth much – to them. Now, I wouldn’t suggest for an instant that racism and homophobia and discrimination based on all sorts of criteria aren’t real. Unfortunately, they define too many of our interactions as humans. However, none of those fears and hatreds...

On Edge

The great French theologian/palentologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin posited an indeterminate future moment where human consciousness and technical complexity would reach its zenith. He stated his belief that we as a species were evolving toward this moment, termed Point Omega. At Point Omega, humanity reunites with the Divine to coexist in eternal mutuality. Recent popular thinking has leaned toward a more dystopian view, imagining a future with the increased technological advances that Teilhard may have imagined, but marked by greater distances from anything that might be considered heavenly. Terminators and Mockingjays and Continua and Jedis have great gadgets, but are they are invariably shaped by darker relationships. Given the current political state, some may believe we are already there. The antipathetic stance of the Congressional majority toward the Administrative branch (and it’s willingness to hogtie the Judicial out of spite), the emergence of two presumptive Presidential candidates that differ dramatically in policy but are almost identical in their ability to arouse dislike and mistrust in the electorate, the deterioration of a long and hard won international detente, near continuous climactic calamity, the global rise of uncritical conservatism – these and more look less like Point Omega and more like a point of no return. But instead of fearing the end of things, I suspect we are close to the edge of things. One of the Presidential hopefuls based his campaign on the belief that a popular surge of dissatisfaction could overcome the entrenched politics-as-usual behavior of his peers in Congress. He might be ahead of his time, but only slightly. The opposing party’s choice of candidate indicates a complete rejection of career politicians as viable candidates for the highest office in the land. Our level of national dissatisfaction with the imperious behavior of the elected is rising as we realize that they are less concerned with public welfare than with maintaining personal position. Like opposing attorneys who argue vehemently against one another in court to create good theater but then get together for drinks and camaraderie before the verdict is announced, the players in the national political drama are aware that nothing serves them so well as their insistence upon ideological certitude while maintaining the intensity of the diatribe. As long as the players can stir up passion and get voters to side with them, the never ending opposition creates heat without light, conflict without resolution, job security without accountability. This is what public service seems to have become. The honorable Senator from Vermont is correct – many of us are tired of it. But while his equally honorable opponent may have successfully engineered the system to insure her ascendency in the party, I believe it won’t be long before the system itself devolves as people glimpse what might be instead of what always has been. But big changes never happen quickly. Entrenched structures, like cruise ships, tend to change course half a degree at a time rather than make sudden 90 degree turns (despite previous political assurances that hope is at hand). If our progress in maturing as a nation is glacial in character, there are signs of it evolving nonetheless. While I might never see the answers I want in my own lifetime, I have begun to see the right questions being asked. Is it true that all people are of infinite value, despite fundamental differences among them? Does growth in one area necessitate diminishment in another? Must cultural stability and societal equality be accompanied by familiarity and personal comfort? Does volume really create value? Certainly, as change takes place, we will experience a relatively high beta level – that is, there will be signs of volatility and conflict as our natural predilection for homeostasis resists substantive change.  “But the days are coming,” begins many a Biblical promise. The days are coming, and deep in my heart, I do believe… Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new...

Titanic Times

April 10, 2016 A friend reminded me that today is the one hundred fourth anniversary of the sailing of the Titanic. I felt immediate and visceral discomfort – an old physical reaction that has been with me since my first viewing of the film “A Night to Remember” almost 60 years ago. The movie, a 1958 retelling of the tragic voyage, starred Kenneth Moore, Honor Blackman and a very young pre-Illya Kuryakin David McCallum. There have been other films since which I have been unable to watch due to my gut response to that first viewing – a deep set, almost irrational, horror of being on an upended ship in the middle of the ocean. The image of the Titanic’s stern aloft at a deathly angle imprinted itself permanently in my psyche. When recalled (even as I write) that image is attended by a physical response in my chest, my groin, and my legs. My breath shortens. My heart beats faster. One would think that this emotional glitch would be attended by a fear of being on the water, but surprisingly, it is not. I’ve always been in agreement with Rat: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” As a young boy, my father began my aquatic education with frequent trips to the Jersey shore for the purpose of being out on the water. The fact that there were fishing lines cast away from the gunwales of the various craft he rented simply provided an excuse for being on the water. Ours was a Naval family – my father served in the Coast Guard during World War II, and his father was a lifer in the Navy with so many hash marks on his dress sleeve that he was unable to bend his elbow. Being on the water was in my DNA and my water times with my Dad were such a fundamental part of my youth that even now, living as I do on the left hand side of the continent, I can’t drive by the Columbia or Willamette Rivers without thinking of being afloat. So my irrational fear isn’t grounded in the thought of drowning (despite my grandfather’s assertion that nothing could be worse than being eaten by a fish). I’m not uncomfortable with being on the deck of something under power or sail. I’ve loved my time in canoes and on rowboats and can’t think of a more satisfying vacation than cruising. It isn’t being a-sea. It’s something else. It’s hubris. The Titanic wasn’t just a ship. It was Babel. It was Icarus’ wax wings. It was Nixon-esque. The idea that we are capable of constructing something that can defy the power of nature or challenge the limitations of our humanity. The ass-end of the Titanic waving in the air like an iron flag of failure is a signal warning that all attempts to surpass the natural order are likely to end in abject failure. Ours is a time defined by hubris. It marks everything we do from our lifestyles to our politics to our belief systems. It is marked by blind confidence that our perceptions are always correct, that might always makes right, that the loudest and most outrageous always has the most value, that shiny is best, that some is never enough. The ass-end of the Titanic symbolizes the comfort we have in depending on fossil fuel despite its degradation of the earth. The ass-end of the Titanic is the bombast of coiffed pols promising panaceas for all problems. The ass-end of the Titanic is our insistence that we are the center of the universe and that nature is ours to re-engineer. The ass-end of the Titanic is our predilection for solving short term problems with military violence that leads to long term suffering. I am no Luddite. I rejoice in progress and discovery and the emergence of technology. But I also believe that all of life contains boundaries and that, despite being improved upon in recent decades, Isaac Newton’s assertion that every action has an equal and opposite reaction still has validity. As a result, I believe that exploration and experimentation must be tempered by the possibility of consequence. Great work should be undertaken not just with consideration of what can be done, but also what ought to be done. Without such forethought, we are likely to be upended. Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new...

On losing a parent

A friend of mine recently lost a parent. As we discussed their sense of loss, I suggested that the death of a mother or father presents us with the second most important opportunity we have for personal development. The first, I explained, was when we made a conscious decision (often driven by subconscious biological urgings) to separate from our parents – the process of self-differentiation that most adolescents experience in their early to mid teens. Somewhere in that transition we go from being individuals defined by our association with our family group to individuals defined by our relationship with peers, usually evoking in parents concern and suspicion at our choice of Eddie Haskell-like friends. From that point into adulthood we negotiate life choices and decisions utilizing tools we’ve picked up from a variety of sources: certainly from our family of origin, but also from peers and “older-thans,” from literature and media. (More than one adolescent, having had Holden Caufield held up to them in seventh or eighth grade, has employed obstreperous behavior just to see if it fits) We carry our parents into our adulthood as constant companions, bidden or not. Our early interactions with them, our perceptions of their beliefs about us, their social, political and spiritual stances, their expectations of our obligations to them and the manner in which we fulfill or discount those expectations all impinge on our daily lives in their movement toward seniority and ultimate expiration. Even as adults, we all exist on a spectrum between wanting their pride and approval at one extreme and maintaining an attitude of disdain and dismissal on the other. While most of us negotiate a relatively fluid position in the middle, we all wind up establishing boundaries between ourselves and our parents that vary in their degree of porosity depending on the amount of anxiety present in the relationship. Nodal gatherings (holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, funerals, baptisms or bar mitzvahs) fall somewhere between events dreaded and those joyfully anticipated. Much of this is occasioned, of course, by our natures. Most individuals stop being defined by parental relationships in their mid- to late teens, but parents are almost universally defined, at least in part, by their continuing status as parents of their own offspring. While I often eschew universal statements, I firmly hold to my belief that human parents, unlike many of their counterparts in the animal kingdom, never stop thinking of their children, worrying about their children, wondering about their children, a fact that many parents feel obligated to share with their adult children. The nagging “refuse to be left behind” parental caricature is ubiquitous in humorous literature and film, my particular favorite being Dallas Corbin’s mother in The Fifth Element. A strange role reversal often takes place later in a parent’s life as failing health mandates a caretaker of sorts and one or more of the children begin to accept parental responsibility for their own mother or father. An entire spectrum of life requirements presses from the management and disposition of personal resource to attending on basic body functions. Son or daughter (frequently daughter) becomes parent attending to the diminishment of the one who was always big and is now small, was always strong and is now weak. The result is often fatigue and resentment on the part of the primary caregiver as grieving begins prior to death, suffering the loss of relationships as they were and are now forever other. But at a parent’s death we face a new and untried reality. Without question, we will carry our parents with us into our own future even as they have attended our journey through life. The way in which we do so will not alter our past in any way, but has the power to positively shape our own future. While many will remember a parent with fondness, even allowing the memory of that individual to romantically soften over time, I freely admit that there are some parents who do not deserve such a legacy. They may have been abusive or neglectful, withering in their treatment of their own children or resentful of the child’s celebration by others. It may be that they were mentally or emotionally incapable of providing optimal parenting or even what Winicott referred to as “good enough mothering.” They may have been absent from the home or absent in place, and their offspring may carry no tender or caring memory of mother or father’s love, but I suspect that those cases are the exception rather than the rule. Most people are, I would assert in yet another blanket statement, doing the best they can. Some succeed more than others, but few intend...

The Real State of the Union

Dear Mr. President: I applaud the effort. Really. Any measures taken to reduce the rise in the increase of gun violence is worth trying. Every reasonable person would agree. Once upon a time, even the National Rifle Association agreed: The problem is, it won’t work. We have debated the causes of gun violence ad nauseum – mental illness and the lack of affordable treatment for those who suffer from it, hatred of America and all things American by single minded militants, the ubiquity of violence in the media and in video games, the ever present antipathy between racial groups, the growing divide between economic classes, the unreasonable influence of special interest lobbies in our legislative bodies. However, these aren’t causes: they are symptoms of an underlying problem. The real problem is that at every level of life, America has become a contest. You see, there has never been a sense of cohesion that binds Americans to mutuality in the same way that other nations with a strong common culture based on race or geographical identity enjoy. True, there have been times when Americans have joined together to address a common enemy (which is why World War II continues to be such a popular war in the American imagination), but in those times we have been different together. We embraced a common purpose, but even though we did so without homogeneity, we found commonality in the doing. In the past, our differences as a complex population have been moderated with reason and cooperation, allowing us to coexist with a modicum of peaceableness. However, those days are largely past. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when all that changed – some argue that it was the devaluation of authority in the 1960s, others would point to the emergence of acquisition as a life goal that is the natural by product of consumerism or to the rise of corporate culture. Still others point to previous administrations that generated fear to meet their own purposes. Undoubtedly, there are a number of causal factors. We can, however, see the results of this change at every level of our interaction as a people – from the rise of bullying and its spread beyond the schoolyard to the aether, to the seething opposition to the right to healthcare, to the five decade increase in divorce and the subsequent abandonment by so many of the institution of marriage, to our devotion to conflict as a form of entertainment whether on the playing field or the video screen, to identity theft and data breeches in commerce and government. The examples of our opposition to each other are rife as we escalate our War With Those Other Americans. The most tragic manifestation of our continued stance as contestants is best seen in the abandonment of cooperation for mutual good demonstrated by members of the United States Congress. The Senate and the House of Representatives, America’s “parental superstructure,” have set a combative tone for the nation, and we, sadly, have not only embraced it, but cheer it on like children who take sides in their parents’ marital conflicts. Personally, I have always favored St. Paul’s approach to things which I might value but would serve as a stumbling block to others. When people in the early church were offended by the decision of some Christians to purchase meat in the marketplace that had been offered to idols (because it was cheap and readily available), Paul insisted that while he had no problem eating such meat, he avoided it because it offended others (take a look at I Corinthians 10). Sadly, that attitude is untenable in a country that is defined by its divisions rather than its commonalities. As the second Tuesday of November approaches, the intensity of our internal contests increase. Pundits bemoan the lack of noble candidates of high intention while the candidates who have emerged, icons of our disdain for “the other side,” have begun their feeding frenzy on their opponents. In doing so, they continue to demonstrate that no slur is too outrageous as long as it is persuasive, acting out in microcosm what has become our national penchant for mutual loathing. Some will win. But in so doing, I’m afraid that we all will continue to lose. Is there a remedy? I have to believe there is. Unfortunately, past attempts to unify Americans have largely fed into our inclination toward divisiveness by positing a common enemy. While there have been a few attempts to rally common interest around a noble goal, the actual work of achieving many of those goals were of necessity undertaken by individuals or institutions with highly specialized skills,...

Adam, Etta and Me

Christmas Eve, 7:00 am. My wife and my youngest daughter stretch out on our king size bed, drinking coffee and laughing. My oldest daughter and her partner are en route from Seattle. We will spend a good portion of the day at our middle daughter’s home a handful of miles away, eating our family’s traditional Christmas foods (which anywhere else would be described as High Tea), playing with the grandchildren. I breathe a sigh of profound satisfaction: At last. Our decision to retire to Portland had nothing to do with the city’s anticipated explosive growth or its reputation as a magnet for creative types, and certainly not for the winter weather. It was, rather, all about proximity to our daughters and their families. After having spent more than a decade in places where family gatherings required full travel days on overcrowded airplanes (with their attendant boarding hassles, layovers, tight seats and petrie dish-like atmospheres), we are finally within easy driving distance of each other. We are not unaware of how fortunate we are: not only did we wish to be close to them, but they, also, wanted us to be close. In an age where families dissemble with long lasting animosity early in their lives and where reunions require a delicate balancing of often tissue-thin emotional tolerance levels, we revel in our delight of each others’ company. Blessed are we among families. Within hours, we will regather. At last. I’m particularly fond of the phrase as it has a wonderful provenance. According to the great mythic tales of beginning found in the Book of Genesis, they were the first words spoken by a human. Adam views Eve for the first time and exclaims “At last,” breathing profound joy of satisfaction that his singularity had come to an end. Okay, so there were a few problems that would arise later (as happens in any relationship), but the downsides never outweighed the blessings of union. Ultimately, Etta James was singing Adam’s song. The continuing story of Israel found in the books that follow Genesis aches with the agony of that couple’s expulsion from God’s nearer presence and speaks expectantly of the day when that separation would be at an end. Try as they might to draw closer to the Holy One, they would fail, only to be further apart than they had been before, anguished and alone. So the Holy One moved close to them, to us, in the most unlikely of places through the agency of a pair of refugees, and heaven and earth rejoined. At last. The phrase, to me, is not about the beginning of things or the end of things, but rather the edge of things. It signifies the transition between a place of dis-ease where we find ourselves to be and a state of transformation where we long to be. At last doesn’t signify closure, but rather a new reality, one long anticipated and finally realized. Ours is a time which longs for such realization: for our religions to manifest aggressive acts of kindness and charity, for leaders to work for the benefit of all, for the rich to divest themselves for the sake of the poor, for the elimination of fear between colors and classes of men and women, for a lasting elimination of barriers between that which is of earth and that which could be of heaven. Share this:Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to share on Google+ (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new...